Paul Cheney

Optimizing Copy: The 7 most common copywriting mistakes we see marketers make

July 18th, 2011

There’s a lot of bunk information out there about copywriting. The barrier to entry for being an “expert copywriter” is pretty low and some of those crossing that barrier are simply wrong when they give advice.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some great copywriters out there. What’s funny though is that most of us here at MarketingExperiments wouldn’t claim to be one of them (even the great Daniel Burstein).

But what we lack in copywriting prowess, we gain in mountains of research on copy that works and doesn’t work. We’ll be sharing a bit of that research with you on Wednesday in our copywriting Web clinic (educational funding provided by HubSpot.) if you’d like to learn more. But, throughout that research, we’ve picked up on a few commonalities in the mistakes copywriters make.

With the help of Austin McCraw’s unused slides from the Optimization Summit, I went ahead and took some of those commonalities and compiled them into a list of common mistakes marketers make when they’re writing copy.

After every mistake, there’s an example of how we fixed it and got dramatic lifts in each case. No bunk copywriting advice included. Just data.

Mistake #1: Headlines with no value

It seems like anytime someone writes about headlines, they use this quote from David Ogilvy:

“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

Of course, clichés get to be clichés because they’re true. When it comes to grabbing your reader’s attention, nothing works better than a solid value-based headline. Your headline should offer the reader a reason to read that first paragraph in your body copy.


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Mistake #2: Action-centric calls-to-action

“Action words” or “power verbs” get touted a lot by copywriters the world over as the ultimate tool for getting prospects to buy. But our research suggests that focusing on the action that you want your visitors to take hurts conversion.

It’s not about the action itself, it’s about the value they’re going to get as a result of taking that action. Getting that right in your CTA can give you dramatic lifts with very little effort.


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Mistake #3: Saying too much

If you are, or ever have been married, you know exactly how this hurts conversion. Assuming conversion means getting to sleep in your bed rather than the couch, saying too much can take you from a 99.9% to somewhere around a .01% conversion rate.

The same is true for your copy. Depending on where your reader is in their thought process, you could be saying way too much when all they want to do is take action. That’s exactly what we found was the case in this experiment…


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Mistake #4: Saying too little

If you thought you were safe on that last one, try this one on for size. Again, depending on where the reader is in their thought process, saying too little is just as bad as saying too much. Your reader needs exactly the right amount of copy to get them to make the decision on the page.

Sometimes that takes 30 pages of long copy, sometimes it takes a few words. In the following experiment, we found that we weren’t giving the visitor enough information to make a decision. Because they were in a different place in the thought process, they needed longer copy.


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Mistake #5: Misplacing your tone

Your audience expects to be spoken to in a certain way. You don’t usually speak to an adult like they’re a toddler and vice versa. A lot of times, copywriters miss the mark a little in their tone. It might not be as dramatic as speaking in baby-talk to paying customers, but it could mean rubbing them the wrong way, even a little with not just what you say, but how you say it.


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Mistake #6:  Visual intimidation

An unclear eye-path in your copy that doesn’t match the thought sequence in your reader almost always hurts conversion. Heavy text without any highlighting, bullets, or bold text to pull the eye through the page is a great example of making this mistake. It also happens with the ever-popular design tactic: evenly weighted columns.


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Mistake #7: Disconnected images

Good copywriters know that images are as much a part of the copywriting process as anything else. Images can support the overall value of the action you want your visitors to take on the page, but they can also cause confusion.

When a reader sees an image that makes her think, it forces her to use extra effort in understanding your offer. That’s the last thing you want your reader doing on a landing page.


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Bonus Mistake: Not testing your copy

The biggest mistake you can make in your copy is not testing. You can read all the blog posts you want on the 7 mistakes to avoid, or strategies to consider, or phrases that sell, but until you’ve tested it for your own audience, you’ll never know for sure how your copy is actually doing.


So with that in mind, I’m going to run a little unscientific test on the copy in this blog post. When I sent this post to my editor, Daniel, I gave him an alternate opening. I expected him to pick one for me to publish, but instead he suggested I test it.

However, since we don’t yet know of a way to A/B test a blog post in a scientifically valid way, we’d like you to vote in the comments about which is the better writing. Again, this isn’t very scientific, but it will help to settle a little bet.

Here’s the alternate beginning:

[Every once in a while, Austin McCraw, Daniel Burstein and I disagree about what gets posted on this blog. Daniel and I tend to be very giving. We always try to over-deliver when we write our posts. Austin, on the other hand, likes to hold back his best content for our Web clinics.

Ever championing your cause, dear blog reader, Daniel and I decided to steal some of Austin’s great content on copywriting and post it here without asking! We’re hoping that asking for forgiveness is better than asking permission in this case. 😉

So without further ado, here are 7 common mistakes most copywriters make when writing copy for their campaigns. After each mistake, there’s an example from our research detailing how we turned those mistakes into sizable lifts in conversion:]

Now, if you would, please vote for the opening you like the best. I’ve got a lot on the line in this one, so I’d appreciate your input.

Related Resources:

Copywriting on Tight Deadlines: How ordinary marketers are achieving 200% gains with a step-by-step framework (Web clinic on Wednesday with educational funding provided by HubSpot.)

Copywriting: How your peers write effective copy on short deadlines

Headline Optimization: 2 common headline mistakes and how to make them work

Paul Cheney

About Paul Cheney

Paul Cheney, Senior Partnership Content Manager, MECLABS Institute Paul helps turn raw research into easy-to-understand content for MarketingExperiments readers. He earned his B.A. in English literature from Covenant College. Before joining the MarketingExperiments team, Paul wrote grant proposals and fundraising letters for a mid-size nonprofit in New Jersey. He has also worked as a freelance Internet marketing consultant and copywriter for small businesses. In his spare time, Paul enjoys reading, writing poems and dating his wife, Callie.

Categories: Copywriting Tags: , ,

  1. June 29th, 2012 at 16:14 | #1

    I prefer the first opening too.

    However, it seems as though one problem is to do with the version you read first. In my experience, that’s often the one I prefer, whatever the content (e.g. songs vs. cover versions) – maybe it’s to do with the principle of consistency?

  2. Doug Barger
    December 7th, 2012 at 21:28 | #2

    In “mistake #2” where you say action-centric cta’s are a mistake and provide an example,

    the winning control example actually is the one that used the action centric cta. “Get”.

    The one it beat out only asked a question about an action.

    This may be the problem with only having the “what” of the results from research and not knowing “why” you got those results from the research.

    In my testing, the more clear, specific and direct you can be with your call to action (tell exactly what and how to do it), the higher the conversion rate without fail.

    I only comment to add the correction in the hope it saves a reader from getting confused.

  3. May 7th, 2013 at 12:30 | #3

    Very clever way to get people to comment. After all that sound advice I can’t believe there was a question about which opening was better. Nicely done!

  4. August 8th, 2013 at 22:22 | #4

    We do a lot of pay per click advertising and this is clearly relevant. It has also made us consider our description text on our webpages. We will update and hopefully see a significant percentage increase.

  5. Sheryl
    January 13th, 2016 at 22:59 | #5

    To be honest, I completely skipped the opening and read the entire rest of the article. So, for a reader like me, the opening is irrelevant when the title already tells me that the list is what I’m interested in.

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